Innovating To Manage Plastic Waste

By Hitesh Vaidya May 31, 2023

While Indore and Pune have developed their own models to work with ragpickers, cities like Goa and Mysuru have invested in material recovery facilities

Innovating To Manage Plastic Waste
Tech aid: A water cleaner machine cleaning the Ganga in Varanasi as part of the Swachh Bharat Mission. Photo: Shutterstock

In so many ways, plastic has more or less become an integral part of our lives. When Alexander Parkes introduced plastic to the world in 1862, little did he imagine that with plastic, waste would one day become a global problem.

The Swachh Bharat Mission, particularly the second edition, has been a watershed moment for plastic and solid waste management at large. It revolutionised the waste management narrative in the country, inspiring cities to make rapid strides in catalysing door-to-door collection, waste segregation, post-processing and reuse for various purposes. In a way, the Swachh Bharat Mission has also paved the path for the ban on single-use plastics announced in July 2022.

With the ban on single use plastic, along with the notification of the Municipal Solid Waste (Management & Handling) Rules, 2020 and Plastic Waste Management (Amendments) Rules, 2022, the larger agenda for plastic waste management in the country has more or less been set.

The success in plastic waste management will depend upon how well a city or state is able to translate aspirations into practice. In other words, the implementation strategy that a city chooses will ultimately have a bearing on the end outcome. And it is here where innovative approaches are required.

The first aspect of innovation needed is in the contextualisation of the problem statement—that is to understand, acknowledge, and appreciate that each city is unique. What may work in one city may not necessarily work in another. The propensity for templatisation in the current times must be viewed guardedly and examined meticulously.

Hence, cities will have to discover their own plastic waste management models, based on the local context and conditions. A good case in point here is how Pune and Indore have involved ragpickers into the formal municipal solid waste management machinery. Pune has collaborated with a waste-picker trade union (Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat) in the city to help with door-to-door collection of waste. From the waste collected, the ragpickers are free to sell the recyclable items. However, they are required to deposit the remaining waste at specific locations from where it is collected by the municipal garbage trucks and sent to the landfill. In addition to helping the municipal corporation save almost Rs. 20 crore annually, the model is energy-efficient and environmentally friendly as waste-pickers recycle and reduce the quantity of waste sent to landfills.

Indore, on the other hand, has a fully Urban Local Body-managed door-to-door collection service. A few years ago this led to a livelihood crisis for the ragpickers because there was no garbage to pick up from the streets. Today, around 700 ragpickers have been employed by the municipal corporation for different aspects of waste management. Both Pune and Indore chose different models for engaging with ragpickers, based on their needs and larger aspirations. Another aspect of innovation required is in the setting up of institutional mechanisms that will help cities stay ahead of the curve and eliminate the practice of reactive planning.

One such innovation introduced by the National Institute of Urban Affairs in association with the National Mission for Clean Ganga is the establishment of the River Cities Alliance (RCA). The RCA is a platform for river cities across the country to discuss and exchange knowledge on how to address river-related challenges, of which plastic pollution is a major concern. Using the RCA platform, member cities now have the option to learn from each other’s experiences and benefit from  the work carried out by partners associated with  RCA.

Innovations are also needed to transit from a linear to a circular economy, which essentially suggests a paradigm shift from a ‘use and throw’ approach to reimaging methods of collection, pre-processing, recycling and manufacturing less-resource intensive products. This involves bolstering every step of the value chain, from collecting the recyclable waste, to recycling it into the required forms, to creating a market for the recycled product.

Encouragingly, there are successful examples of how Indian cities have embraced innovation across the plastic value chain. A well-known innovative example for collecting plastic waste is that of Ambikapur in Chhattisgarh. The city has set up a ‘garbage café’, where one can get a full meal in exchange of one kilogramme of plastic waste.

When it comes to recycling plastic waste, there are several examples of cities like Goa, Bhopal, Mysuru and Indore, which have invested in material recovery facilities that help in creating recycled plastic products. In terms of creating a market for the plastic waste products, cities like Jamshedpur and Surat have set an example by constructing several kilometers of roads using plastic waste. Likewise, in Dhenkanal (Odisha), non-recyclable plastic waste is also processed to make PVC paver blocks, which are good substitutes for cement concrete paver blocks. There is a high demand for these blocks to make roads and platforms as they are cost-effective and more durable compared to concrete blocks.

The challenge of plastic waste management is substantial, and  it will only intensify. If necessity is the mother of invention, challenges are the drivers of innovation. The stage is, therefore, well-set for ushering in an era of innovative approaches and solutions for plastic waste management throughout the country.

Hitesh Vaidya is Director, National Institute of Urban Affairs